There is no more mysterious figure in contemporary film and theatre than that of the dramaturg. They lurk in the shadows of the set or rehearsal room, muttering with the director and taking notes. One day on the job might see them poring over costumes, another might have them talking actors through a script, word by word. And things only tend to become more puzzling when you approach them; chances are if you ask three professional dramaturgs for a succinct job description you’ll receive three wildly different answers.
Despite the air of confusion that accompanies their practice, dramaturgs are united in their efforts to analyse the theatrical elements of a production; they use their skills to interrogate meaning, as intended by a script, director or creative team, and how that meaning plays out on stage or on camera. Because of the understanding they gain of their chosen medium, and the influence they can wield in any given production, “dramaturg” is a role many creatives of other disciplines jump at the chance to perform, especially in countries (such as Australia) where formal training in the field is less established. If you have ever considered giving dramaturgy a try, this article should answer enough questions and provide enough guidance to get you on the right path. After that, it’s up to you to cultivate that all-important sense of mystery…
What is a Dramaturg?
This is a deceptively difficult question. Dramaturgy, in the classical sense, refers to the study of dramatic composition and the different elements of drama as they appear on stage. It was first used in the seminal theatre text Hamburg Dramaturgy (1767-1769) by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing who, as the first dramaturg (to refer to himself as such), worked with his theatre to assess and program dramatic work. The closest modern equivalent to this is probably the literary manager of a theatre company. In the contemporary industry, dramaturgy tends to refer more to the practice of dramaturgs themselves; their role is to analyse and interrogate every facet of a production in order to help the director and creative team best realise the work. This may include script analysis, research, editing or suggesting amendments, and even giving feedback on the state of a production and what it appears to be saying. While dramaturgs primarily work alongside the director they may also think of themselves as representative of the author (and their intended meaning) as well as a sort of proto member of the audience—seeing through their eyes as observers and consumers of narrative, theme, meaning, and symbolism.
Why Become a Dramaturg?
While some might be deterred by the prospect of multiple roles and responsibilities, dramaturgy promises great creative satisfaction. No other position offers quite so broad a perspective of the production process, nor a better opportunity to hone your own understanding of film/theatre/television. You are also guaranteed to gain new insight into your primary field, such as acting, when challenged to approach it from a fresh and removed perspective. Beyond personal development, working as a dramaturg for a friend or peer’s production can be an excellent means of contributing to your own creative circle at minimal personal cost beyond time and effort. You can also use these opportunities to help develop your own dramaturgical skills, readying you for more challenging and less familiar ventures.
Finding a Job
When starting out, the best way to find work as a dramaturg is to ask for it. Many emerging productions will not think to budget for a dramaturg as they might do for ‘required’ roles such as a designer or director, so you have a fair chance of signing yourself on if your pitch is strong and your labour is free. Look for projects that compliment your own base of creative knowledge, and think about what kind of dramaturgical services you can offer; if you have a background in Shakespearean theatre, you might dramaturg a production of Macbeth and help the actors with script analysis. If your background is in musical theatre, you may work on a devised movement piece to help appraise their interpretation of the score. Dramaturgy often gives you the opportunity to incorporate skills beyond your trained discipline into your practice. Think about your knowledge of music, of history, of art, of design, of tennis, of medieval warfare–all of these fields may prove useful in the dissection of a play or film you work on. A university degree you earned ten years earlier, and now consider all but useless, may just give you the edge in securing the job.
Know the Text
The minute you find yourself attached to a production as a dramaturg, commit yourself to knowing the text inside and out. Take detailed notes, ask questions, and be ready for any inquiries as to the meaning of the work. If you are working on something that does not follow a script—such as a dance or devised piece—it can be helpful for you to compose your own “script” of notes or directions, so you have a clear understanding of what is going on. At times when there are disagreements about a creative decision, or the meaning of the work is obfuscated by a facet of the production, the text is going to act as a tie-breaker to determine what should be done to resolve the issue.
Talk With Your Director
The other thing you should aim to do as soon as possible is to meet with and speak to your director. While you may liaise across multiple departments, your primary task will be supporting and working with them; establish what skills of yours they might require (analysis, feedback, research etc.) and how best to keep checking in with them throughout the rehearsal or filming process. Some directors will want plenty of input from a dramaturg in the art-making space whilst others will be fine with a check-in outside of the rehearsal room/set. Whatever choice is made, it is best if you can schedule regular sessions together so that your input (and, in a sense, legitimacy) isn’t diminished by the appearance of it being surplus to the requirement of production.
At some point, it is likely that you will deliver feedback critical of the choices the director has made. While we will cover this in more detail below, the best way to navigate this situation is to communicate warmly and openly: always clarify that your priority is the work and its best possible presentation. Although you may be the only person able to directly criticise a director’s choices in the production, it is important not to mistake this as a symbol of elevated status.
Hearkening back to the earliest incarnation of the role, dramaturgs often conduct extensive research—both of the script (as mentioned above) and the world it describes. You may look into a particular time period, a culture, or even concepts touched upon in the work such as politics or science. If your production is based on an older text, such as a Greek tragedy, you may also be required to research traditional staging practices, giving insight as to how such works can be either faithfully (or subversively) exhibited to contemporary audiences. Research is usually presented to the director in a production-tailored ‘workbook’. If required, an actor’s version is also produced containing material relevant to their particular discipline.
Keep Notes, Give Feedback
Following all of your careful prep work—all of your research and analysis of text and discussions with directors and designers—the best contribution you can make to a production is to take extensive notes on everything you see and hear. As you are looking to interrogate meaning, one of the best things to do is to record your observations either in the form of statements or questions that you can later ask a director—a la Katie Mitchell’s “facts and questions” method of script analysis in her 2009 book The Director’s Craft: A Handbook for the Theatre. If you were to observe a scene where the meaning of an important line is lost on the actor, rather than write down “this line could be better”, or “the actor doesn’t understand the subtext”, try: “What is this character trying to convey?” or “What is the significance of this moment for the audience?”
Positing your observations as questions will give a director the chance to provide their own point of view, and speak to a possible solution directly without simply being told they are wrong. You’ll still be able to make your point, but in a way that invites the person in charge of creative decisions to do their best work and not feel second-guessed. If possible, shoot for open-ended questions. And never forget the two most useful questions you can ask: “Could X be stronger?” “Could X be clearer?”
Remember Your Role
This leads us to one of the most important things you will need to develop when becoming a dramaturg; take the time to get used to the unique position you will hold in a creative team. You are separate from the ensemble, focused on the semantic end-game even when experimentation and self-expression are the order of the day. Often, you will be the first to realise when something does or doesn’t work. Your job is never to pass judgement, never to step in and co-create or direct (unless you are asked to do so). All you need to do is look and listen to what unfolds in front of you, and provide the best possible analysis. In time, your peers will take comfort from your shadow-lurking and note-taking; they will come to trust your process and know that you are there to help them make their very best work.